Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why Zen? Why not? Part 1: Early factors

I’ve been asked more than once how long I’ve been a Buddhist, and even more frequently, what is means to follow Zen Buddhism. The answers are at once simple and complex, much like Zen itself. So, for the benefit of anyone who cares to know the answers (good luck on the latter!), keep reading.

Looking back, I have to acknowledge that I was a follower of Zen long before I ever heard the word; probably all my life. I grew up in the Baptist church, and was regularly regaled with the story of a loving Creator’s promise of eternal torment if I failed to recognize and publicly acknowledge the singular divinity of the Father/Son/Holy Spirit trinity. This was enough of a paradox to raise questions in my mind; questions that were amplified by the pronouncements of people who implied that they had an intimate relationship with that Creator, and were therefore qualified to pronounce “His” judgment via proxy.

Like the deacon who caught me smoking a cigarette behind the church and pronounced that my descent into hell was inevitable. My expletive-enhanced response to him elicited a “visitation” with me and my parents in our home that very afternoon. Thankfully, my mother withheld the inevitable punishment long enough to ask me why I had said such a terrible thing… to a grownup, and a deacon, no less. When I told her, she not-so-politely challenged the deacon, and invited him and his fellow elders to leave her home. I got punished for my response, of course, but the greater lesson was learned from her defense of her child.

What really sealed the deal and convinced me that I did not belong in the church was when a Sunday School teacher informed me that only humans had souls, and therefore that my beloved dog would never be in heaven. Looking in my dog’s eyes, I could clearly see the falsehood in the teacher’s words. And though I was later to be baptized in the church, it was, to be honest, an attempt on my part to be thought of as something other than a wayward child who was beyond redemption, which was how most of the grownups saw me. But the baptism didn’t take. I was still the wayward child, and my sinful acts were still dutifully reported to my parents, most reports beginning with, “That Ronnie… Bless his heart…”

I never could accept that a creature as loving as my dog was soul-less, and I knew that no matter what he did, I could never intentionally inflict upon him even a moment’s anguish, much less, an eternity of it. And if there was a God, he would have to be nicer than I, or I (and a lot of other people) would have been smote with that fire and brimstone a long time ago. In truth, even as a small child, I couldn’t accept the assertion that a divine being was so emotionally needy that “he” required absolute agreement, much less universal adulation. And for a time, I guess I’d have called myself an atheist, had I been aware of the word. I just didn’t believe anything… except, of course, my own unworthiness. That lesson had been driven home quite effectively. Unfortunately, the belief that I did indeed deserve my forthcoming descent into hell lingered, unspoken, but ever-present. And with that knowledge, I figured that what I did no longer mattered. What was important was that I not get caught. Hell would come later, so I’d best enjoy whatever I could get away with now. The only inhibiting factor was my own aversion to hurting others… unless I believed that they deserved it. I became my own paradox – a sociopath in training, albeit with a vestige of a moral compass. The perfect perspective upon which to build a happy childhood.

And yet, there were moments when I felt a certainty – deep within me, and in spite of outward appearances – that there was more to existence than the cynical picture I could envision. Those moments, spent in solitude, listening to the whisper of a breeze through the branches of the trees, or gazing silently into the sky and turning the clouds into galleons or benevolent ghosts, were my transport from the bleak world I had come to know. It would be many years before I would learn that those moments, which I sought out with the ardor of a starving animal, were called Meditation.

~ To be continued (eventually) ~

Monday, June 24, 2013

But does it ever get DARK here??

It’s been nearly a week since I returned from my visit to Alaska, and my sleep patterns still haven’t returned to normal. For someone who awakens at first light every day of his life, an Alaskan summer can be a dramatic event, because it never gets even as dark as “first light.” One cannot grasp the significance of being in the Land of the Midnight Sun without actually having experienced it. I found myself, on numerous occasions, almost yielding to the temptation to call home and relay the experiences of my day, only to realize that while it looked like late afternoon in Homer, it was 3 AM back home, and that my call would likely startle my lady awake (There is no such thing as a good 3 AM call).

Circadian challenges out of the way, here is a brief recall of my time in Alaska, and – said challenges aside – it was a wondrous trip, only possible because of the prodding and insistence of my precious daughter and son-in-law. When I said, months ago, that I would come, she bought the airline tickets, thus racking up some additional airline miles, while simultaneously ensuring that I would indeed come (and reimburse her). She’s crafty that way.

The flight from Austin to Houston to Anchorage was relatively unremarkable, aside from the first hop, which found me seated next to a guy who weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 300+ pounds, and whose girth left roughly 2/3 of a seat for my comfort. No sweat… It was a short ride. The plane from Houston to Anchorage was delayed, allowing me to soak up an extra hour and a half of Texas heat while parked on the tarmac, and placing me in Anchorage with a mere 3 minutes to get to my connecting flight.

  Here’s a shot of the Yukon Territory, taken from my plane. Phenomenally unspoilt and majestic.

Rapid response on my daughter’s part got me switched to another flight, this one to Kenai rather than Homer. She must have broken every speed limit en route, because she arrived to pick me up only about 20 minutes after I landed. All I could think of when I saw her was that I’d actually forgotten how beautiful she is. And she looked genuinely thrilled to see me, which wasn’t always the case when she was growing up under my Machiavellian thumb.

I won't go into the return flight, except to state that it never reached a level requiring intervention by Air Marshals. I must give credit for the "incident" to a remarkably rude fellow traveler who had made it a priority to crush my snacks, if not my knees, though the situation was diffused by the somewhat late-in-coming good judgment of an equally rude male flight attendant. And that's all I'll say about that.

Sharon and me at the airport in Kenai

I had expected to be alone at their house for a few of the days during my visit, as she and Corey both held positions of responsibility at their workplaces, and I didn’t want or expect to compromise their professional well-being. As it turned out, they took off the better part of the time I was there, and had plans for the majority of our time together.

Alaska is very much a study in contrasts. You might see a multi-million dollar cabin that looks like it came straight out of Architectural Digest, and an old school bus turned into a ramshackle cabin, mere yards away. Some of the friendliest and most attractive people you’d ever see, right next to someone who would look wholly familiar alongside Jethro Tull’s Aqualung.

On one day, we took a 2-1/2 hour boat ride across the Kachemak Bay to Seldovia, which has the feel of an artists’ colony that has recently found favor among the travel agents. The plan was for the 3 of us to take a hike on the wilderness trails, but the few miles we walked through the village let me know that I wasn’t up to it, so I suggested they go alone, and I would return to a delightful coffee shop / bookstore we had visited. We parted ways, and I ended up spending the next couple of hours chatting and making music with John, the owner (Well, in truth, he made the music, and I introduced him to John Prine’s genius, albeit with my less-than-remarkable voice.). With a clear stream flowing lazily below us, it was a perfect setting for coffee, cookies, and new friends. I will go back there someday, but in the meantime, I’m sending John a John Prine songbook. If you ever get to Seldovia, do yourself a favor and go visit John. You won't have to ask him twice to get his guitar out and play for you. And don't forget to sample his home-baked cookies. They're wonderful.

View of the Seldovia Slough and the deck of Warehouse  Books & Coffee

On another day, Sharon and I took a mellow raft trip down the Kenai River from Cooper’s Landing, under the capable guidance of Alaska Wildland Adventures. Not a whitewater trip, per se, but remarkably relaxing… except, perhaps, that one moment when the oarsman asked us if we wanted to shoot a small rapid, and we all chimed in with an enthusiastic “Yes!” They weren’t kidding about the water temp being 40 degrees. So much for being lulled by the stream, but it was actually pretty warm outside, and the minor splashing was actually quite refreshing!
 On the Kenai River

Interspersed between these day-long adventures were visits to all the touristy shops in town and on the Homer Spit ( A long peninsula that is home to myriad bars, restaurants, charter businesses, and fishing companies. Again, contrasts.). Topped an afternoon on the Spit with Corey with an essential requisite for all tourists, which entailed tossing down beers at a famous local watering hole.

Looking across the bay to the Homer Spit

The scenery and atmosphere of the Kenai Peninsula is compelling, to say the least (though I suspect it would lose a bit of its allure during winter). The most remarkable parts of the trip, however, had little to do with topography or Chamber of Commerce efforts. In my previous experiences, even when spending time with the closest of friends or relatives, there comes a point at which you begin to miss the relaxed comfort of being in your own space, and grow increasingly aware that you are a “guest” in another’s space. In the 8 days I was there, I never had such a feeling, and felt every bit as welcome on my last day as I did upon my arrival. There were no “issues” lingering beneath the surface, awaiting resolution, and no longings for solitude or more familiar environs. Sure, I missed my Connie, as well as our menagerie of animals. But the longing was to have them all brought to me, rather than a desire to escape to my more familiar world. And this comfortable feeling can only be attributed to Sharon and Corey. Whether they were truly enjoying my presence the whole time or are supremely gifted actors, the sense of being welcome was unshakable, and means more to me than I could ever describe. All the conflicts that inevitably arise between parent and child were long gone and all but forgotten (except as fodder for laughter). I know of few people who have experienced such true communion with kin. And aside from a slightly alcohol-infused (but amazingly animus-free) political discussion after a night at the bar, there was little in the way of “debate.” We were all just too busy having fun and enjoying each other. And in the end, I found it awkward to call Corey my son-in-law, which seemed to conjure the stereotypical “in-law” images. He’s my son. And a dear friend. And Sharon, who will always be my little girl, is someone I would definitely seek out as a friend in her own right, had we not already achieved that kind of comfortable relationship. The “kids’” politics, we’ll just have to work on. My adoration of them will remain intact.

Corey & Sharon on the trip to Seldovia

Coming home was bittersweet, with the sadness blunted somewhat by the awareness that Sharon will be here to visit in a few short months. I only hope Corey makes it down soon, as well. Otherwise, I’ll have to wait until they buy their house, which will give me an excuse to come up and help with the remodeling they want to do.

It’s been almost a week now since I got home. My sleep patterns are slowly returning to normal. As are my eating habits, which were drastically modified by Sharon’s incredible repast. From scrumptious, fried fresh-caught halibut to a breakfast devoted to exquisite gluttony (What else would you call a pound of bacon, a pound of sausage, biscuits, pancakes, and potato pancakes for only three people?), to treats from the killer Three Sisters Bakery and the Alaska Wild Berry store, I ate more rich and delicious food in a week than I normally ingest in a couple of months. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I did notice that the planes had a bit more difficulty taking off on my return trip than they did on my arrival. Just saying…

Friday, May 24, 2013

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I think we all know and admire people who seem to be able to get along with anybody. And I’m the first one to acknowledge how noble such an attitude can be. Sometimes, I’m even envious of their ability to mesh so well with so many different kinds of people. I mean, just look at how many friends these people have, and how diverse those friendships are.

I, on the other hand, am not one of those people. I enjoy being around a lot of different people, and cherish my friends, especially those with whom I can have lively discussions, even disagreements. But there are some types – toxic, petty, deceitful, shallow, self-absorbed, or exploitive people - whom I am more likely to confront than to embrace, at least until I recognize the futility of the confrontation and grow weary of it.

When I encounter someone (with the notable exception of sales people and other business types) whose very persona seems to drastically shift, chameleon-like, to mesh with everyone they encounter, I find myself wondering who they really are, and what they stand for. Since a degree of certainty as to how someone will respond in a given circumstance is the core element of trust, and trust is the core element in any close relationship, I tend to keep such people at arm’s length, at least on an emotional level. I just don’t know who they are going to be in any given situation. I can care deeply about them, but I temper that with the realization that I may well be responding to their positive strokes, despite not knowing whether their support is heart-felt or just another of their many changing colors.

I know that my friends will have my back, no matter how grave the situation. They will also challenge me if they disagree with me, and get right up in my face if they think I’m being unfair or cruel or putting my or someone else’s well-being at risk (all of which, I have been known to do). And they know the same about me. When all is said and done, I know that my friends love me as deeply as I love them, and will alternately have my back or hand me my ass as necessary, both from an attitude of love. And these are the essential elements of a trust that can never exist in the company of a chameleon.

That's why I don't like to step lightly into a relationship, even one that I envision as a casual acquaintance. I'd much rather that both of us learn what the other is about early on than spend a significant amount of whatever time we might have left changing colors.

(Note: The symbol at the top is the Chinese symbol for trust)

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